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The lost legacy of Hunter Thompson: Is journalism better off without it?

During the 1970s I was trying to be some kind of journalist or writer. So the rise of Hunter Thompson was riveting. Because he also was trying to be some kind of journalist or writer.

Not to worry. He wasn't a very good shot.

Not to worry. He wasn’t a very good shot.

He succeeded in mashing up the distinction between those pursuits years before the Internet made it an option for anyone with a computer and Internet access. His first-person, drug- and alcohol-fueled “investigations” provided insight mainly into the psychopathy of Hunter Thompson, but weirdly also revealed unrelated vaults of psychopathy in American culture and politics. His high-octane musings provided much of value in stoking a skepticism that ought to be tended and stoked and tended and stoked and tended and stoked, like the community fire in some prehistoric tribe. But who is doing that now? Which of the major news organizations are paying the salary of someone who has the primary assignment of tending and stoking skepticism?

I don’t see it.

At least in broadcast media, I see adolescents, giggling over “in-depth, personal” questions to John Boehner or Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. These are sniggling idiotic queries, and public figures have every right to be outraged by them. It’s enough to make you want to take to your vintage Cadillac, with a loaded pistol, handful of amphetamines, and bottle of Jack Daniel’s—and a maniac attorney friend, if you have one—out for a joy ride.

I loved and loathed Hunter Thompson. But I never thought of him as a journalist. I thought of him as a writer who could change journalism, indeed who may have changed journalism. But I don’t see that legacy just now.

My wife told me the other day: “You know, I don’t trust mainstream journalism anymore.” It shook me. But I couldn’t disagree with her. And that shook me more.

Where is mainstream media on the evolution of human consciousness, the fact that facts exist that show that consciousness is not confined to the limits of the dead-matter atoms and molecules of the brain and body? Hard facts. And how about alien abductions? Sounds crazy, right? Light is no longer the speed limit of the universe. Telepathy. Alien implants. Reincarnation. Government cover-up and disclosure. The Illuminati/cabal. Where’s the coverage? Nowhere.

Tom Brokaw got some good quotes from Brangelina the other day. And Chuck Todd asked penetrating questions of Paul Ryan about the cigarette smoke smell left in the office formerly occupied by John Boehner. But if Hunter Thompson were alive, he would be riding a mothership to the hidden base on the backside of the Moon, bong in hand.

He's on the phone. Must be something important. Room service?

He’s on the phone. Must be something important. Room service?

It’s time for mainstream journalism to go a little crazy again.

I’ll never forget a summary of final thoughts in Time magazine after the death of Richard Nixon in 1994. A bevy of well-known personalities provided comments, which were of the “great man, did a lot, human and flawed, loved his country” variety. Here’s what Hunter Thompson said:

“If the right people had been in charge of Nixon’s funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin.”

I actually started out here to bury Thompson, not to praise him. So much of his methodology was questionable, suspect, despicable. He knew it, but he also knew himself: “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.” More quotes here. And in fact, I agree with his opinion of Nixon completely.

Here is an almost incomprehensible interview with Thompson on Letterman from 1988. Thompson died—a suicide—in 2005 at age 67.

Has he changed journalism? Would journalism be in a better place without his influence, if indeed he had any influence? I hope that Thompson has changed American journalism. Mainstream journalism. Right now, I’m not seeing it. If his influence persists, it’s perhaps reflected in a kind of reporting that’s even more irresponsible than his own. Not what it could or should be if his legacy had any meaning whatsoever. He had messages for the mainstream, and the mainstream has decided to ignore, giggle, defer. Jerks.

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